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Why So Sad? and The Good Egg with John Rattray and Neil Macdonald

Photo: Wig Worland.

Hailing from the Granite City of Aberdeen in northeast Scotland, throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, John Rattray not only obtained a degree in Physics from the University of Glasgow, he simultaneously established himself as one of the most solid all terrain skateboarders in the British Isles. As the new millennium was ushered in, John’s profile within skateboarding continued to grow, which ultimately saw him parting ways with his U.K. home of Blueprint Skateboards to further his career Stateside, joining the Zero Skateboards pro roster at Jamie Thomas’ personal request. Over John’s time as a professional skateboarder, from the outside, the lad from Aberdeen appeared to be ‘living the dream’ – he laid claim to revered video parts, esteemed interviews, signature shoes…he obtained everything he probably daydreamed about whilst skating the Westburn Park mini ramp in his youth. But away from the public eye, John was struggling with his own mental health, and was regularly subjected to periods of depression and anxiety.

Fast-forward to the present day, and John, now in his 40s, has quietly stepped back from the world of professional skateboarding, but is still residing across the Atlantic - in Portland, Oregon, with his family - where he has a full time job at the Nike SB HQ. Since 2018, John has been using his standing within the global skateboard community to raise awareness of mental health issues and suicide prevention. His original mission - entitled The Good Egg - paved the way for his most recent initiative Why So Sad?, which, earlier this year, John brought to his native Scotland for a bike ride, skate session and panel discussion at Glasgow’s indoor haven, The Loading Bay.

In the wake of the resoundingly successful Glasgow event, Neil Macdonald caught up with John in hope of conducting an interview that explored the evolution of The Good Egg and Why So Sad?, but what he came back with was much grander than anyone could have anticipated. What you are about to read is a transcript of a sincere and sprawling conversation between two friends, one that not only dives into the origin and progression of John’s mission, but also covers such topics as suicide, grief, addiction and mental health, and how skateboarding (or cycling, or playing the guitar) can be used as a tool to enable healing, reflection, change and growth.

Please read on to find out more about John’s journey, and if you find yourself affected by any of the topics touched upon here, there are contact details for relevant organisations located at the end of the interview.

All artwork by Jon Horner.

John, 2022. Photo: Graham Tait.

How did The Good Egg come about, and eventually evolve into the Why So Sad? project?

Do you want the short or the longer story to get there?

Since this is The Skateboarder’s Companion, let’s take the longer story.

OK, well, my sister Katrina died by suicide in 2011. She’d been up and down. She’d followed a different path in life than I had; she’d been into figure skating as a kid when I was into skateboarding. I’ve often thought about those two different cultures: figure skating seems to have much more rivalry, skater versus skater, whereas we know skateboarding offers youths a global network of friends, essentially. It’s not skateboarder versus skateboarder really; it’s skateboarders together versus the world, which is kind of a cool thing about skateboarding compared to other sports. This deep camaraderie. Even though it’s in the Olympics and all that, we’ve still got GX1000 out there in the streets, it’s still got this outlaw notion to it, and I think that’s a really interesting thing.

The commonality between my sister and I was that we grew up in a house with an alcoholic, and, I know now, that was tough. So, I went on and found skateboarding, and moved away from Aberdeen to study. Katrina stayed in Aberdeen, got a job in an office working for a small oil and gas company, and had a kid when she was nineteen. She had as much support as she could get from family but everything in her life was not all rosy. There was a lot of stress all the way through her adolescence and into her twenties. So, we haven’t answered the question, but we’ve at least started the journey towards answering the question.

How did the grieving process for your sister compare to when you lost your dad when you were a kid? I think I felt relief when my dad died, relief that my mum could get her life back. She died 18 months later but she had some stress-free time there. I didn’t really grieve when my dad died, and I don’t think I’m bottling it up inside or anything, but you were much younger than me when your dad died.

First, I would say that I’m not sure if it’s possible to lose a parent and not grieve in some shape or form, and it comes differently for everyone, so I would challenge you to reconsider and reflect on that a little bit.

Second, I think grief is experienced differently when you’re an adult than when you are still essentially a child, or adolescent.

I was 13 when my dad died, and when you’re a kid growing up with that you don’t know what’s normal and what’s not. Reflecting on it now as a 40-something with a kid, it was good that my mum got out of it. They were already separated and he died when he was living in a little one-bedroom flat on his own with who-knows-how-many bottles of vodka in there with him.

Same as mine.

I was not prepared and I couldn’t comprehend it at that point. It was devastating. My dad’s gone, and he’d told me we were going to go fishing, and now that’s not going to happen, and now there’s this new person. I can’t even describe that.

In my whole adolescence, as a teenager, I would have what I realise now are dissociative periods, these up and down depressive periods, which I didn’t have the terminology for, so you’re just rolling with these emotional waves and having no idea what it is or where it’s coming from or how it works. All I could tell myself as a teenager when these things would happen would be that I just needed to give it time. A week, or two weeks, and I’d know I’d feel better and I just needed to ride through it each time, and I’d just try and do my best. I didn’t understand it whatsoever, but I muscled through, as they say.

Photo: Wig Worland.

You mentioned you couldn’t comprehend it then, as an adult have you reached some form of understanding of what happened there?

Alcoholism is a form of suicide; it comes from the subconscious, and my dad had that illness likely because of his childhood. He did not have a great childhood either, so I forgive him for that, but that took time. The great poet Ozzy Osbourne was once quoted as saying, “Wine is fine, but whiskey’s quicker, suicide is slow with liquor”. There’s this self-destructive thing that happens all too often in humans. I was too young to comprehend it. It took years…

When my sister died it was a very different death. I was 30-something, and, again, not able to comprehend it; suicide was not something I’d ever really faced up to because… You don’t. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s scary. Terrifying. Naturally, human beings flinch back from that topic… You’re not the life of the party if that’s your conversation subject.

To answer the question, the grief of losing my dad at 13 was like a huge slow dark storm that left a dark nebulous sewer of cryptic feelings that haunt you for years, until you are able to understand how what happens to you shapes you. We’ll come back to that point.

My sister, that grief, was like having your guts torn out of your stomach and thrown on the ground in front of you, and then being punched in the face by the Hulk. It was that level of shocking, of ‘what the fuck just happened?’ and then your mind goes into overdrive on stress. Your brain is flying with ‘why, what, who?’, blaming people, anger at people, anger at Katrina… That was hell.

And you’re on the other side of the world.

I went back as immediately as I could, but I don’t remember anything about that. I remember riding my bike around San Diego, where I lived at the time, and not being able to see for the tears.

When I headed home we had the funeral, and I talked to people, and slowly over the course of a few years, I was able to get some distance from it, and rationally learn about it and comprehend it a little bit. To read about it and learn some of the warning signals for it, how the brain responds to chronic stress, how suicidal ideation can progress to the so-called ‘suicidal trance’, and to read numerous case studies of people who’ve attempted it and then gone on to get therapy and lead happy, productive lives. It was relieving to understand it, but also annoying to realise that these are preventable tragedies. We just don’t talk about the mechanisms, the indicators and the action plan to stay safe and get help.

So I was back in Aberdeen in 2011, for the funeral, and when I talked to Katrina’s psychotherapist she told me to not try to comprehend it. I’m not that kind of person, to not try to comprehend things. I’m quite the opposite. But, to her credit, I did not try and comprehend it for years. It was too raw and I needed some distance. You don’t realise at the time but grieving is a process. It doesn’t just happen overnight, and for something like that, it happens for the rest of your life.

So, getting back to how the Why So Sad? project evolved. Over the course of the next couple of years I was thinking how I wanted to do something, and how we need to talk about this more, how I needed to learn about it, but I’m not a professional and I’m not going to go back to college for seven years and get a Master’s degree in psychology. I was thinking about what I could do as this aging pro skateboarder with an old physics degree.

This was before I’d really read anything about it, so I was thinking I could fundraise for professional organisations. My cousin Liam actually left the banking sector and is now the Suicide Prevention Manager at the Scottish Association for Mental Health, so he was working for a professional organisation in the field, so I thought I could raise money for them. What do you do to raise money? You can’t ask for money for nothing so you’ve got to do something. I skate and I ride bikes, so I thought I’d do that. Do some big adventure and make a video about it, and Kickstarter, Just Giving and GoFundMe and all those had started to proliferate as platforms on our amazing Pandora’s Boxes that we carry in our pockets these days. So, there we had, firstly, means to fundraise made easy. Secondly, the connection to somebody working in a professional organisation meant there was some credible place to point to, and thirdly, I had a small platform from being a pro skateboarder so I have a small audience I can work with. That was the confluence of factors.

The idea to raise money developed, hence the pun ‘The Good Egg’, so I thought I’d relearn eggplants and do one at Lincoln City and we’d ride bikes to get there. I thought that could be a fun thing to make a video about while getting to talk about, and dig into, the subject a little bit. I think it was more of a personal story when we did The Good Egg, because I hadn’t done so much research at that point. That was the beginning of it. [John] Cardiel came on that one; he’d actually made some embroidered patches with a buddy and he’d done a little illustration of Ronnie Sandoval doing an eggplant in a bowl with a campfire and a bicycle. I love all those things, and John’s a hero of mine. He was actually going to be in Portland around the time of the trip so he came along.

Jolly weather surrounds a sadplant (in Falkirk). Photo: Wig Worland.

And John lost his brother to an addiction.

Yeah. We talked about that a bit on the ride. I need to get back in touch with him and talk more, but that was how it started. And off we went, with this notion that it’s a philanthropic exercise, hence the name.

I kept researching it, and it evolved into Why So Sad? because of a few things. Mainly, I was listening to a podcast with Johann Hari because I’d read his book Lost Connections. He was talking about the research for that book. He was talking about how he’d spoken to the physicians from Kaiser Medical Group that developed the ACE study—the Adverse Childhood Experience study—in the nineties, Drs Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda. He said that Robert Anda had realised that we need to reframe this question when we’re talking about any sort of chronic adult mental health condition. He reframed it as, ‘We need to stop asking, “What’s wrong with you?”, now, and we need to start asking “What happened to you?”’. They’d realised that what happens to you as a kid when your brain’s developing has an ongoing impact all the way through your life. Our brains make associations with what’s safe and what’s a threat, so that they can respond rapidly without thinking and escape danger. Patterns are imprinted, and then we respond to the world accordingly for the rest of our lives. Not understanding this process is a problem. Understanding it empowers us to manage ourselves and properly heal. That’s not only my opinion.

These things are generally, understandably, unchecked. They’re not things that people want to remind themselves of. This ticking time bomb of emotional distress is not something that people really want to address.

There’s a time and place for it, so making the time and making the spaces for it is important. We can do that. If we make time for when we talk about heavy stuff, I think that’s OK, and it’s important. It’s almost like having a cold plunge, where you don’t want to do it but when you do it’s really refreshing and revitalising and good. The fear of the subject is a big part of the problem, but once you dive into the cold water you realise that it’s very valuable and helpful.

You can think about why you’re way more bothered about certain things than other people are by looking back, and it’s very often going to be something lingering that’s built up and got worse that makes you feel certain ways. There’s a source, and if that source can be identified, it might be easier for that person to have the conversations they need to, to feel better, because it can be hard to open up to people if you don’t know what to say.

You can do that by yourself, and then there’s a lot to be said for finding someone to share it with, even if it’s a professional person. It’s their job to listen and help you self-analyse. The fourth point on the Mental Health First Aid list is to encourage appropriate professional help, which is all well and good, but there’s many roadblocks and bottlenecks for lots of people to actually get professional help. Even going to your family doctor is a start. Finding therapy and finding the therapy that works for you is challenging in itself, but to your point, there’s a lot of what the fundamental elements of therapy is that we as a community would do well to learn the basics of, so we understand what it means to listen non-judgementally, why that’s an important thing, and how to do it. And asking the appropriate follow-up questions. You do not need a Master’s degree to do that. We can just be a bit better at understanding it and reducing the fear of the subject.

So, the Mission.

I’d been looking for some other tricks that have relevant names so I could make a pun, and have a little tagline, and provoke people to look at what this is and get involved in the conversation, and I thought of the sadplant because I was obviously on some sort of invert kick after the eggplant.

‘Why so sad?’ is the question, almost this flippant simplistic version of ‘What happened to you?’, and it almost sounds like you’re making fun of the subject which is good because then people might ask if you’re making fun of it, and then you get the opportunity to say, “No, I’m not, this is quite serious, but thanks for asking, so let’s now talk”.

The melon grab was actually called the melanchollie when I was a kid. It was not named after a fruit, youngsters! It was named after the emotional state of being melancholy because the front leg extension resembled the form of the sadplant, and I’m sure Gary Scott-Davis or whoever was captioning TransWorld photos at the time made it up on the spot, but now here we are and that’s the story and it’s relevant to this mission too.

So now that the sad element and the emotional state of melancholy are embedded in the name of the Mission, I thought that maybe we could branch out. I posted a picture of a pivot fakie on my little miniramp and I was like, “This used to be called the mayday when I was a kid”, and Dave Swift had commented saying, “Because you were crying for help when you were going in backwards on a vert ramp in ’89!”, so I thought that was cool. ‘Mayday’ is the radio distress signal for help, and that’s central to this entire subject! So I thought we should have that. And also it’s easier than a sadplant, which is a tall order. Even a sad grab, lots of people can’t do them, but you forget how many people can do good pivot fakies.

I quite like the obsessive-compulsive thing where it’s just two or three tricks. Get everybody to do the same trick and then see all the different versions of the one trick. And the tricks become symbolic of the conversation, and the shared code we have as skaters.

Photo: Ari Morris.

Photo: Neil Macdonald.

What was the first Why So Sad? event then?

I did an event in Portland, in January 2020, at Bodecker Studios, and that was the first event. We screened this film that Ewan Bowman and I had made, that Benjie [Bateman] had filmed some stuff from the Scotland leg for, so it had the Scotland leg and the Oregon leg in it. That was more about me reflecting on work that I’d read at that point, so we showed that and did a little talk, and then the pandemic happened. That just took the wind out of everyone’s sails for a couple of years.

Then the [Nike] SB team had asked if we could do this shoe project and that kinda re-sparked me that there was still interest in it. So I got a bit more energy back, the cogs in the old creative side of the brain started turning, and I started building up a little project again, based on sad grabs.

This was more in small chunks, like one day doing a ride in Portland for one organisation, then another day posting some essays that I put together based on research into one part of it. I’ve got an interview coming up with some friends that run a little business here about their experiences and some of the work that we’ve done together. So more smaller, bite-sized things than ‘We’re going to ride a hundred miles with John Cardiel and do an eggplant in a concrete bowl!’ It’s been more about what I can do that’s nearby, that some of my friends can also do.

And you brought it to Glasgow.

I finally got to go back to Scotland after not travelling for three-and-a-bit years, so I hit up Sam Paterson who runs Skateboard Scotland and told him I’d love to do another event for the Why So Sad? project, because I’d been doing it, I’d been writing about it, and I’ve had physicians who follow skateboarding get in touch. There was a doctor from Texas, and a journalist had hit me up. There had been people who were literally medical professionals hitting me up. One had said, “Hey, thanks for doing this and for it being really rigorous and well thought through and eloquently stated”, and I’m thinking, ‘It is?! Oh! Good!’ Some people said I was the sole voice of reason on this in skateboarding, but I don’t know if that’s true. I’m thinking that if I’m the sole voice, that’s a problem. We need more voices grounded in evidence-based information talking about this in a down-to-earth way, because if I’m the only person, there’s seriously room for improvement. But all of that was encouraging.

So I spoke to Sam, and I talked to my cousin, Liam, and his colleagues at The Scottish Association for Mental Health. I talked to the Ben Raemers Foundation and they wanted to come up, so I thought we could have a little event.

The whole thing about the event comes back to this notion, the idea that if I’d had a dollar—or pound, or quid—for every time somebody’s said skateboarding saved their life or that skateboarding is their escape, then I would have… Quite a few quid. It makes sense, because - in addition to the connection to community that it has the potential to provide - reading around how physical activity itself helps us emotionally regulate and why that happens is really interesting on its own, but the follow-up question, now that you’re regulated and skateboarding has saved you, is, ‘What has it saved you from, and what were you escaping from?’ If we don’t ask that follow-up question then we’re missing that crucial next step in terms of healing, grieving, therapy and managing ourselves. The physical activity - for us, skating or cycling - helps us take that first step, but the second step is also needed, and that’s something I want to keep hammering at. So the event is a big skate session, but we also stop, talk, listen and learn, as opposed to the old school, ‘Let’s skate then let’s get wasted’. Let’s change the ‘get wasted’ part to, ‘Let’s have a panel discussion about an important subject, and hopefully have it in a lighthearted way that allows us in, and we can stay calm as we talk through what we think is a scary subject’. It turns out it’s not as scary as we used to think it was, because there’s been a lot of really good work done.

Sweeper during The Arches' early days. Photo: Wig Worland.

And the ‘skate and destroy’ approach to dealing with your problems isn’t always the solution. When I was struggling most it happened to be during lockdown, and my mate Phil was the manager of the local indoor at the time, so I just skated in there with him for hours at a time, just me and him, and that helped so much, but going skating might not always work. If I’m feeling shit I often don’t even want to leave the room, so the last thing I want to do is go out and do something noisy, and draw attention to myself, and probably hurt myself because I’m not concentrating.

There are plenty of other ways. Playing the acoustic guitar works for me, getting into that ‘flow-state’ of creating rhythms. Some people like to make beats on a sequencer and all that. Focussing on things like that, and doing some sort of breathing regulation, there’s a bunch of different combinations of physical things you can do. It doesn’t need to be about going out to skate and destroy. The Skate Like a Girl hoodie I’m wearing right now says ‘Skate Slow and Live’, and I love that.

When I didn’t want to talk to the people around me it was things like a bus driver saying hello, or the lady in Greggs being cheerful, that made a big difference. There are beacons of positivity in real life. I was cycling a lot when I was starting to make myself feel better, and when you’re away off somewhere far, seeing different towns, different places, seeing all these people you’ll never meet going about their lives and getting on with things helped me a lot. Just to remember there’s such a wider world out there. You can see the world going about its business from your bike and you don’t need to engage with anybody if you don’t want to.

It can sound trite but it’s true, we’re all connected to this whole world. I’ve had to hold on to those little beacons, the glimmers of hope, myself when I’ve been going through these episodes in my own life. The more that we can plant those seeds, or lay those breadcrumbs as I like to say, the better. Those little memories. ‘What was that one thing that Rattray and Neil were talking about in that thing? That’s right, it was that these thoughts might not be right and my brain might be doing this automatically and I need to get through this’. That might spark somebody to go and take some sort of appropriate step, and realise they don’t need to act on these thoughts.

And that this thing is understood by wider medical society, and it’s fixable.

It’s a malfunctioning brain and it’ll function properly again.

You mentioned how the sound of your dad’s keys in the door would trigger a stress-response, and I remember how the sound of my dad coming down the driveway would do that for me. What happens in the next few minutes is going to dictate the next 24 hours, basically.

I wouldn’t say that if I hear keys rattling in a door now that I necessarily get triggered, but it’s an example of something tangible. When you’re a kid and you go through these types of things, that’s where everything starts, in your subconscious brain, your emotional brain. Every moment of the day through your whole life, that’s where your experience of any moments that you were in begins, and your brain gets you into a state of readiness, and it learns to do that very quickly when it’s developing when you’re a kid, and it makes these associations. So for me, a door opening is a different experience as an adult, given what the door opening meant as a kid. It’s a different experience for me than it might be for another adult for whom it was not a problem when the door opened in the evening.

It’s an extra hurdle, something else that a person who had that happen in their childhood now has to deal with.

It’s not to say you can’t manage it, but if you don’t understand that that’s the process that’s happening in your brain, then you’re not empowered to manage it. That’s the thing I found so useful about understanding the brain science of it, that Bruce Perry’s been working on for the last few years.

When I was a kid the sound of a metal bottle top being unscrewed from a glass bottle in different room from where I was made me know that things were about to get bad, but then with growing up and drinking Buckfast, and associating that with friends and good times, the noise eventually stopped bothering me.

That’s a different experience though, that’s the interesting thing. The second line item on the mental health first aid action-plan is ‘Listen non-judgementally’. The non-judgementally part is about putting your assessment of somebody’s particular circumstances aside, because you don’t know what their back-story is. You don’t know where they’ve come from, or the thousand miles they’ve walked, or what they’ve experienced that’s led them to experience a situation—that you think is fine—differently.

The day will come where wild maydays will be caged. Was this the day? And was it in May? Photo: Graham Tait.

You don’t know the things they aren’t telling you.

Yeah, the things that maybe they haven’t even figured out for themselves. It’s not easy work; it takes some effort to do the introspection on yourself. Therapy costs money for a reason, but also, it’s not rocket science.

I didn’t tell anybody at school about my dad’s alcoholism, or the general misery at home, but it made me want to be out the house as often as possible, which I guess meant I skated a lot more, so there was that.


As a young child in that situation back then, you basically have to make excuses for these people who should be infallible, who should be guiding you and inspiring you, and you have to hide that, but it can come out years later. When my daughter was due to be born, everybody was telling me that this fatherly instinct would just kick in and I’d be a dad and adore everything about being a dad, but even the day before she was born, I was still waiting for it to start happening. Then when I held her it still hadn’t happened, and I was thinking it might be tomorrow, and it just didn’t seem to come. I love her so much and I love being a dad now, but while I don’t sympathise with my own dad and everything he put my mum through, at the time it was just like, ‘Shit, I’ve got something wrong with me that’s the same as my dad, and that’s why he was like that. I can’t do this’. He didn’t seem to want to do it, he didn’t make much effort to try to learn how to do it, and he drank and drank until that killed him. I thought that this gene or whatever that I’d inherited had just presented itself and said, ‘Yeah, you can’t be a dad, it won’t work’. That was when I started planning to remove myself from the world, before my daughter would know me.

All of that’s totally understandable; the human brain will do this under chronic duress, and one of the thoughts that you’ll have is that you’re a burden, and you don’t want to be a burden. ‘I don’t want to put this on my friends or family’. That’s one of the things your brain starts to do because it’s a natural DNA-hardwired thing for us to need to be part of a group. Human beings flourished across this planet, not by acting as individuals, but because we’re really good at communicating and coordinating our efforts together, and making plans to take down woolly mammoths or whatever. That’s how we’ve evolved, so it’s a really fundamental, existential need for us to be connected to a group, and I put that into one of the essays I wrote. I call it ‘John’s Theory’ because I haven’t actually read this anywhere, but the thoughts the come into your head when you’re in what Richard Heckler calls ‘the suicidal trance’, all those plans that you’re making that are coming up from your lower brain are an automatic response to this on-going stress of ‘I am not good for the group’, and those negative thoughts are based on the feelings that were imprinted into you when you were a kid. So knowing where those thoughts are coming from—once you’re feeling better and you’re calm, and you have actual access to your executive function again—empowers you.

That’s the other interesting thing about Bruce Perry’s work, he explains that when you’re under stress your brain literally deploys resources down into your fight-or-flight response, so you lose access to being able to properly rationalise, and you’re really just responding to these old emotional thoughts that are coming up and you don’t have an opportunity to do what your cortex does, which is to look at thoughts objectively and make decisions about which ones to act on.

All of that has been studied; there are case studies of people who’ve been through it, people who have attempted to take their life and then go on to figure out what it was that triggered it all and live happy and productive lives. That’s one of the most hopeful things I’ve read over the course of these studies, and I think it’s important for us to share our stories and our new understanding of how it works and what the mechanisms are.

I think all the scientific language, all these bewildering words, make it easier. It’s like, there’s a name for these things. Lots of people feel like this and some very smart people can explain why it happens.

Exactly. This is what I got annoyed with when I was finally diagnosed with depression—kind of a simple word that we all know—when I was 39. It was like, ‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’ There’s 30 years of research explaining how it works, with the functional magnetic resonance imaging-based work that’s been done to look at the brain and see what happens to it when you’re under stress.

It’s like if you broke your arm, and you didn’t know that it’d heal, how would you deal with that?

It’s the same thing. ‘We know how this works, we know that you can get through it’.

It was 2011 and we were back in Scotland, my sister had just died by suicide, and I was asking her psychotherapist about what happened. I was going in, I was like, “She was on Amitriptyline, she was on this serotonin reuptake inhibitor, she had had this happen to her…”, and the psychotherapist was like, “Stop. Don’t try to comprehend why somebody snaps and goes over the line to take their own life”. And I was thinking, ‘What? You’re the professional person and you’re telling me that?’ The Adverse Childhood Experience test was done in 1995 and Richard Heckler wrote Waking Up Alive in ’94, so we’ve known about this stuff for a long time. To be fair, Bruce Perry’s work hadn’t been done at that point, so the actual brain-science part hadn’t been layered on, but there was work and understanding out there already. So that annoyed me. Maybe the work had been done but it hadn’t permeated to the Cornhill Psychiatric Hospital in Aberdeen.

I hum and haw about how much technical language to bring into essays, or talks, versus keeping it simple. Bruce Perry will talk about the four systems in the brain in quite technical language, but then there’s another psychologist called Bessel van der Kolk who wrote a book called The Body Keeps the Score, and he just breaks it down to your ‘emotional brain’ and your ‘thinking brain’.

When I was feeling the lowest I got a couple of books, but there was no way I thought they would help. Not that I had the attention span to be able to read anything then anyway. I think if I’d known about the idea of neurological disregulation then, it’d have been so much more reassuring.

The rational part of it is not something you can do when you’re literally in the throes of panic and depression. Like I said, you lose access to your executive function. Physiologically your brain is down to fight-or-flight. You need to wait, and that’s why the physical regulation—this calming, patterned motion—thing is really interesting to me. You can go skate, but knowing why you’re going skating and how it helps you can calm you down, there’s breathing you can do, and there’s the acoustic guitar that I use to get myself physically regulated so that I can start to rationally think again. Getting yourself out of stressful situations means identifying the stressors, but that takes a bit of access to your rational brain too. You always have some access to it, I think. At least within the cases that are manageable.

There’s a curve here, and there are some cases that are really extreme, but I think with my sister then, and with yourself and with myself, I think we’re within the parameters of manageable mental health challenges.

That’s what annoys me about my sister and about Ben [Raemers]. I know they could have got through it, if they’d had access to the simple knowledge techniques and self-help strategies. But we don’t talk about this stuff.

I remember thinking that trepanning, where people drill into their skull to let their brain decompress, was going to be the best option to let all this bad shit out.

Oh man. I’ve been at points where I’ve thought similar things. You get crazy.

I thought I needed to give this thing a hole to escape from, because it wasn’t going to come out my mouth. Turns out it can come out of your mouth after all.

Yeah, that’s it. Speaking is certainly not for everybody though, so you can write it down or record a voice memo or make a podcast that you don’t ever put out. You don’t have to speak to a person at first, if that’s difficult.

Did suicidal thoughts come alongside the depression for you?

When I first got to the point of pretty bad depression and suicidal ideation I was in my early twenties. I was travelling in the States with Colin [Kennedy], and I ended up off on one. I didn’t talk about this before, but we were with a bunch of homies and we were at a tradeshow, and I took a puff on a joint and it was some crazy weed, and that set me off. The effects of the actual THC probably wore off pretty quick, but there was all this underlying emotional stuff I hadn’t dealt with from grieving my dad passing and feeling disassociated from everything around me. Plus the stress of it being right at the beginning of my pro career and me becoming ‘known’ in the States, so I felt really at odds with that.

I was also at a crossroads in life; university was done and I hadn’t made a decision on what to do with the rest of my life. There was a bunch of stuff going on, but I think that chemical trigger sent me off on one and it sort of unlocked this cycle of negative thoughts coming up from below. I didn’t understand what was happening and it was this vicious cycle into psychosis and starting to think I was done, and that I needed to get myself out of this world.

I went home to Aberdeen and my sister actually realised something was wrong, and she took me to the doctor. I can’t beat myself up over that; it’s just an unfortunate thing about the cycle of life, that she helped me out and then I moved away to the States and was not there for her. You can’t feel guilty about following your own life.

You definitely can’t feel guilty about doing something that makes your family proud.

‘You have to put your own oxygen mask on first’. I’ve got a tattoo of that.

Are there things that people can do to better understand one another’s mental health?

Taking the time to stop and learn a little bit about how our brains work is a really good first step if you just want to get a better sense of how you can talk about mental health and understand that it’s not such a scary subject as it used to seem. Back in the eighties and nineties ‘mental health’ was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, where you’re in a padded cell with a straitjacket on, nobody knows what’s going on with you and you’re done, you’re never getting a job again. It’s not that anymore. It’s understood. This is physiological stuff that happens to us that we can treat, and have concrete actions we can take to heal from, and then go on to live our life again. It can be a thing that happens to you, like when you break your arm, and you do the work to make it heal and you’re better again, and stronger again. And maybe more equipped to deal with these things in the future.

Learning can be interesting and fun. It’s not always a chore, even though the experience we have in school might have led us to believe otherwise.

Imagine they taught this at school. Learning how to explore your emotions, rather than just remembering things.

Well my cousin Wendy’s a primary school teacher, and she’s been saying that it is being worked into the curriculum now. I don’t know to what extent, or if that’s just in Scotland, or just in the outskirts of Aberdeen where she works, but that was encouraging to hear. Hopefully that’s a broad thing and these types of subjects are being taught.

John, Denburn mayday, 1998. Photo: Wig Worland.

What books would you recommend?

What Happened to You? by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. It’s a good read, even if it does get a bit technical. It’s quite nicely put together in terms of how it’s a conversation between Oprah and Bruce Perry.

Lost Connections by Johann Hari I found really helpful. He talks about how, yes, there are some genetic factors and biological factors involved, but there’s a lot that’s circumstantial and societal, in terms of what causes depression. He goes through some of the research that he did, and some of what I would term ‘deceptively simple solutions’.

If you really want to go into the depths of suicidal ideation and how that works, and read about people that have been through that and then gone on to heal, Waking Up Alive was written by Richard Heckler in ’94, so pre ACE-study, but in that book he already starts to identify patterns that Felitti and Anda went to town on and did a massive, statistically-rigorous study on, and developed the ACE questionnaire that’s still used around the world to assess what your history of adversity is, and therefore what’s your likelihood of having less optimal outcomes.

Those three books were really helpful for me, and there’s a series of lectures that Bruce Perry made during lockdown, from his home office, on YouTube. It’s him talking about the neurosequential model of therapy, if you want to get fancy. That stuff’s super interesting.

As complicated as these words are, they’re talking about us. They’re talking about normal people.

If you break it down, neurosequential just means ‘the order in which your brain processes’. His point is that your brain processes in a very specific order, from the bottom up. The brain starts with feelings, always. What’s the situation? Are you under threat or are you safe? That’s before you even think a thought, every moment of the day. It does that based on everything you’ve experienced growing up as your brain was developing, and learning to survive. And then, and only then, do you get up into your cortex and assess rationally if a thought is worth acting on, or if a thought is correct. If you’re stressed you lose that ability, and then you’re into a red alert problem area, and if you don’t understand what’s happening, things can go awry pretty quick.

Understanding that that’s how it works is a huge thing.

To me it’s been a game-changer. It’s like, ‘Oh man, why did nobody tell me this before?’ And to be fair it’s because that research has only been done relatively recently, and it’s just been in the academic field, but now it’s starting to get popularised.

Alright, well, thanks. It’s been good to talk to you about this stuff.

That’s what it’s all about, and it’s not that complicated. Sometimes it’s just making space to have a bit of a conversation about stuff that you’ve had in your brain the whole time that’s never been verbalised, and verbalising it. That’s processing. That’s helping you process something. Putting it into actual words that you put out into the world is part of it. A lot of therapy is deceptively simple to the point where you’re like, ‘Is this it?’, and yeah, this is actually it, and then you end up feeling better about it. There’s probably some Zen Master in ancient China who said the same thing 3,000 years ago and we’re just relearning it again.

For actual crisis resources, the ‘support’ page on the Ben Raemers site is really comprehensive - - The Scottish Association for Mental Health has a wealth of resources on their site - - Mental Health First Aid England runs a course that’s quite broad and goes into suicide prevention, but there’s more to it, in terms of understanding the broader scope of what mental health means. Please visit for further info.

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